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Creating a Training Program that Works

Training.  Not the first word that comes to mind with you think of distribution center operations—retail, wholesale or otherwise.  It usually leaps more immediately to mind when you think of Olympic or world class athletes.  These are the people who endure seemingly endless training in order to excel at their chosen sport.  But think about world-class distribution operations for more than just a moment, and it quickly becomes clear that no successful distribution center functions without a training program for its associates at the least, and optimally its managers as well.

Training programs cannot simply concentrate on the “how to” of a particular job function.  True, the most common (and necessary) training focus is the purely pragmatic—how to perform a specific job or jobs within a distribution center.  However, both legislation and fiscal realities drive the need for additional, or at least enhanced, training.  This includes certification on the basics of specific equipment operation, and more general, but still critical, training in safe warehouse operations.  Safe warehouse practices not only benefit the employees by reducing operating hazards, they help the warehouse operation by reducing the lost time and workers’ compensation costs.  Equipment operation training enhances the effectiveness of any associate utilizing mechanized equipment such as lift truck equipment.   OSHA demands a formal training program for all employees operating “powered industrial trucks” (read “fork lifts”).   You must train and evaluate every employee hired on the particular type of truck they will be operating, in the environment in which they will be working, before they are assigned operate that lift equipment.  This regulation (29 CFR 1910.178) also mandates maintaining documentation to prove that any operator on any lift at any time has satisfactorily completed such a training program.

With all these pressing reasons to train employees in more than just a few “how to” aspects of their daily work task, it is clear that an effective training program is worth the time to develop, implement, and maintain.  This need then begs the question of how to develop a program that will have the desired effect.

Here are several items to keep in mind when developing a training program.  For the sake of simplification, let’s limit discussion at the moment to pure operator training programs—the “how to” of a given job.

The first step in an effective training program is to define the distribution center’s operating procedures.  While this sounds obvious, many operations are sadly lacking in written standard operating procedures (SOPs) of any sort.  Many of them have modified and enhanced their processes through the years without updating the associated SOPs.  A training program cannot succeed without them.   If documented operating procedures do not exist or are outdated, create or update them.

Having well-documented procedures give a training program a very important characteristics: consistency.  Regardless of who administers a training session, by consistently instructing staff you will develop consistent performance on the warehouse floor.  That documentation does not need to be limited to something as lifeless as words on a page.  If you are creating a training program for an existing operation, use video of the training tasks that employees must learn.  It doesn’t need to be studio quality.  In fact, enlisting line employees to create the video will help get them interested in the practices you are trying to teach.  When creating a training program for an operation that may not yet exist—a newly mechanized distribution center under construction—animation services simulating the tasks to be performed can be a great help in orienting new hires and existing employees alike as they are trained to work in their new environment.

Specifically focused sessions provide the best training.  This usually takes the form of task training.  Endeavoring to train associates in several functions at once, for example shipping and order picking, is bound to be fraught with difficulty and confusion.  Keep the training discrete by job function.  Once an associate has mastered one job function, move to focus on the next job training to achieve effectively cross trained staff who can move seamless between different functions.

Training sessions must engage the trainee.  Handing a newly hired picker the trainee’s manual for picking might be a good idea as a prelude to their training class but shouldn’t be the end of their training.  A trainee should have the opportunity to ask questions about expected tasks they must complete before encountering those question while on the warehouse floor.  You enhance the impact of training by introducing trainees to the equipment they will be using first in a classroom environment while discussing the elements of their job.  For example, by supplying an RF scan gun in training for an operation that utilizes RF technology, your trainee will be more involved than if they are passively following their manual as you explain procedures.  By attaching that RF gun to a terminal emulator to simulate the scanning that will occur when on the warehouse floor, you have engaged the trainee even further.  In short, the more constructively active the trainees get in their sessions, the more effective the training.

Any training should include real time exposure in the actual operating environment.  Aside from completely engaging the employee, this closely supervised work time can answer questions that may not have come up in a classroom environment.  This time can be as simple as the new associate “buddying-up” with an experienced associate or supervisor or as organized as a pair of supervisors walking a new picking crew through the complete picking of an order and then assisting as the crew picks its first orders.  The importance of this practicum is that helps the trainee make the transition from classroom to the warehouse floor.

You should validate all training.  While in the most mundane sense of the word, this means testing trainees to evaluate how much of the training they have retained, validation can take several forms.  Yes, you can give a classic test to make sure the operator has learned the necessary information at the session, but there are alternatives.  Software-based tests, incorporating videos or animations with either simply one-word specific answers or multiple choice answers can be created once and used to validate training for the life of a training program.  For those most practically minded, the real-time exposure in the actual operating environment mentioned above is also an effective means to validate the classroom training effectiveness.  Finally, an understanding of the new employee’s effectiveness over time (the learning curve) is another way to gauge a training program’s effectiveness.

Keeping these points in mind will enhance your chances for success.

  • Consistency. Each session must be consistent with those before and after it.
  • Focus. Maintain a special focus on a discrete function in classroom and floor training.
  • Engage. All sessions should strive to actively engage the trainee.
  • Time. Real-Time practicum should follow the classroom time.
  • Validation. Validate all training (and enhance the process when possible).

By keeping these characteristics in mind as an operation develops its training program, you can more easily attain and maintain successful world-class distribution operations and the competitive advantage that comes with it.
—Bryan Jensen, St. Onge Company

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